Turkey Tails

Well, another Thanksgiving is behind us and talking about how to cook your bird to keep it moist is over for the year.  Or is it? I don’t know about you, but my immediate family and close friends are still “talking turkey.”

The week before Thanksgiving, I noticed that one of the Union Square Green Market poultry vendors was taking orders for heritage birds. My curiosity was peaked. As we were a small gathering this year, I decided to try something new.  Why not a heritage turkey which is traditionally much smaller than your normal big-breasted Tom. Twenty dollars was all it took to reserve our 7 to 9-pound turkey. More than enough for our small group, or so I thought.

When I asked the vendor how to cook a heritage turkey and he replied that he had no idea, a stately gentleman behind me hearing the startling response piped up.  I turned around and observed him.  Beautifully dressed in earth tone tweeds and a natty brown felt hat, a dashing, 70-something man offered cooking instructions.  “As heritage birds are not raised for size but rather for taste,” the gentleman explained with authority, “they are quite lean. As they have little fat, I like to put flavored butter under their skin and always add liquid to the roasting pan.  Be sure to start with a bird at room temperature, too.  But most importantly,” he said looking me earnestly in the eye, “Do not overcook your bird.  Good luck!” With that admonition, he moved to the front of the line and ordered two partridges for his evening meal.

Thanksgiving Day I followed the gentleman’s precise instructions after getting proper temperature guidance from Jan Hazard, former food editor at Ladies Home Journal.  If not stuffed, twelve minutes a pound at 325 ⁰ F, she said. When the bird reached 165⁰ F temperature, I pull the roasting pan out of the oven.  Drat. The bottom wasn’t adequately cooked, so back it went for another 20 minutes, this time upside down.  Fortunately, I remembered a trick from the NYT Food Section which recommended starting with the bird breast-side down, then turning it mid-way through the cooking process.  Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

The rest of the dinner was delicious—all traditional dishes flavorfully prepared. When carving the heritage turkey, however, I noticed it had very little meat, barely enough for one meal of leftovers.   So, what’s the point of all the work and expense, I asked myself?  When I thought about the $9.00 per pound versus the $2.00 per pound for a traditional Broad Breasted White bird, I couldn’t reconcile it in my part Scottish mind.  Yes, the heritage bird was tastier than your average bird and we were supporting an endangered breed. But, hoestly, was it four times tastier? Un tacchino di una buona familigia—as it is called in Italian—will probably not happen next year in this family.

My friend Deborah Mintcheff, a cookbook editor, had a similar experience with her heritage turkey which she ordered online, also at great expense.  When she called the purveyor the following Monday expressing her disappointment, her money was refunded without any hesitation! 

The week after Thanksgiving, I was curious to find out how my friends’ holiday feasts had turned out.  Many confessed to not really liking turkey.  Some pals claimed they bypassed the turkey altogether in favor of other preferred side dishes.  One friend told me his wife no longer even makes turkey for the family.  Instead, she prepares a hearty stuffing with lots of pork sausage, apples and onions.  So, who needs turkey?

Another friend and former public relations specialist, Joan Ross, told me she and her two sons has been invited to Porterhouse (a top NYC steakhouse) for Thanksgiving.  “Porterhouse?” I said in shock.  “Yes,” Joan answered matter-of-factly. “I enjoyed a traditional meal with all the trimmings while my boys ordered ribeye steaks.

We chatted in our Italian class that week about how brining was now a thing of the past in gourmet culinary circles. Our teacher, Anna, corrected us saying her brother in Ann Arbor told her the salt section at Zingerman’s had been totally cleaned out when he arrived for his day-before Thanksgiving shopping. Clearly, brining is still popular in Michigan.

Haven’t you noticed there are new recommendations every year from experts on how to cook a turkey? The print and online Food Sections across America are mandated to write something different each year.  I suspect, it becomes one of those tasks which food editors annually dread.  After discovering brining and rubs several years ago, the cooking authorities told us about deep-frying turkey in large vats of oil, barbecuing on the grill, and now even in a crock pot.  Then, they debated previously accepted methods.  To baste or not to baste?  With the aluminum foil tent or not? Roasting whole, deboning, or cut in half and flattened?  With the goal of achieving a deliciously, moist bird for family and friends to applaud, the yearly debate never seems to find a conclusion.

However, no one has yet been able to top the grand-daddy of all turkey preparations which hit the food columns several years back and became an overnight news sensation: the Turducken. It consists of a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck, which is in turn stuffed into a deboned turkey.  While I have no intention of ever making a Turducken, I am certainly curious to taste this preparation one day. That and a deep-fried turkey.

As a holiday, Thanksgiving is fraught with potential problems.  The worst, in my opinion, is when the host(s) only cooks once a year. Disaster is inevitable.  For years my husband and I had to suffer through a similar scenario.  When I complained one year, after-the-fact, to several friends, each replied that they, too, had experienced similar “bad food Thanksgivings.”  The antidote to everyone’s missed favorite food holiday was a “Friendsgiving” at our home a month later.

On the appointed day, our first guests arrived.  We opened the door and gasped.  There were our friends—Sue Robinson and her trickster husband, Jim—grinning broadly with their arms outstretched. They proffered a golden-brown, baked turkey presented on a fancy wooden platter. Luckily, it turned out to be a very realistic, plastic blow-up bird. (Yes the one used for this article!)   What a relief as my husband, Ed, had prepared a delicious 12-pound turkey filled with his famous chestnut, onion, and pork sausage dressing.  Other guests contributed their favorite side dish many using some form of green or bright orange vegetable.  Considering these friends were all good cooks, our belated Thanksgiving, with all the trimmings, was out of this world not to mention colorful. 

Thanksgiving memories warm the heart but not always the stomach.  When I was growing up, my Italo-American father disliked turkey to an obsession. The only way my Waspy mother could serve it was if she allowed my father to stuff it with a meat mixture heavily flavored with Italian spices.  A Thanksgiving truce and tradition which my sister, Sharon, and I followed throughout our childhood.

While liking turkey at Thanksgiving is debatable, left-overs are a non-issue as everyone loves them. My mother’s favorite was a sandwich made with, give me a drum roll……...stuffing. As kids, Sharon and I would hear the refrigerator door opening late at night and know our mother was sneaking one of her famous stuffing sandwiches. This always produce a “Gosh, Mom, that’s gross” reaction from her daughters..” Just think of it: bread stuffing sandwiched between two slices of white bread with a slather of Miracle Whip and a thin layer of cranberry sauce. Does that count as double or triple carbs?

My favorite Turkey Day taste recollection was when Ed and I ate Thanksgiving twice in one day.  We finished an early dinner in New Jersey with family where the bird took forever to cook, then high-tailed it back into Manhattan. We arrived just as Michele and Charles Scicolone were taking their perfectly browned turkey out of the oven.  We sipped Prosecco (Charles is an Italian wine expert) while patiently waiting the requisite 15 minutes for the bird to cool before carving. 

Michele, one of the country’s leading Italian food expert and cookbook author, scooped out the stuffing.  To our surprise, it was not made of dried bread crumbs but rather of pasta.  You read me correctly!  Pasta.  Michele had made of mixture of rigatoni with Bechamel sauce and stuffed it into the bird.  The turkey juices slowly seeped into the pasta mixture further intensifying the “stuffing’s” flavor.  All I remember is that I went wild eating two servings of Michelle’s tacchino ripieno di pasta summarily the best thing I’d ever tasted at a Thanksgiving dinner.

No doubt, you too, have amusing Thanksgiving memories, some more delicious than others. Leave me a comment and I’ll include in next year’s Thanksgiving reportage. 

Happy leftovers, food lovers of America.